Viognier. Hard to pronounce and hard to like. Yet it’s become a darling of much of the Cape winemaking industry over the last few years; on its own as a floral and usually flabby white, but also as an addition to Shiraz. All of a sudden, if you want to make a serious Cape Shiraz, you seem to need to add a dollop of Viognier.
This is the practise in the Rhone region of France, where they use a small percentage of this white variety to lift the fruit of their Shiraz and also to soften the hard tannins of the red. But by small percentage we are talking five or less. As the Viognier fad has gripped the Cape, this additive has been employed in far higher percentages, often resulting in red wines with a distinctly unsatisfying mid-palate. A kind of middle-aged spread at late adolescence.
But there are some examples of the intelligent and astute use of Viognier. At Fairview, where the variety was first made into wine commercially, the idea was to use Viognier as a blending partner with not Shiraz but Pinotage. “Why re-invent the wheel?” asks Charles Back, who examined the reason why Viognier was used with Shiraz in the Rhone, not just the fact that it is used with Shiraz.
Softening some harsh tannins? It sounds like Viognier has a natural place with Pinotage reasoned Back, and their Pinotage-Viognier blend was born. Pinotage is famous for having quite pronounced and chewy tannins in its youth – which is also the reason why it ages well. But a little softening in the early years, like what’s needed with French Shiraz, is just the ticket.
And it works a treat. The hard edge is tickled, and the natural fruit of the Pinotage shines. Fairview also uses the Viognier in their take of the regional Rhone-style red wine, the “Goat-Roti”; as well as their riff on white Rhone blends, “Goats-do-Roam in Villages,” which is fantastic.
Plus Fairview, and the sister winery, Spice Route, indulge in single variety Viognier. At Fairview, the single-variety wine shows as a floral, ripe melon flavoured wine with a surprisingly elegant and lean palate. The Spice Route incarnation is richer, floral and distinctly broad and opulent in structure. Says Back: “It has a mid-palate texture and weight that works well with the type of food that we enjoy in South Africa”. Some suggestions that were floated were crayfish and mild curries, and I can’t argue with that.
While Viognier is certainly not going to jump to the top of my white variety hit list, I am certainly better disposed to it now that I have seen it in bed with Pinotage. It takes birds of a gamey feather to flock together.